Sanbona’s name in itself is a recognition of the original San hunter-gatherers who inhabited this landscape for thousands of years, while ‘bona’, in many African languages means ‘to see’, recalls their view of the Klein Karoo, a land once rich in wildlife.

The history of the San and Khoikhoi people in Southern Africa is one of tragedy, that sees both tribes driven out of their land, displaced and impoverished due to settler expansion into Southern Africa. By the 1700s, their traditional way of life had effectively ended and much of what they knew has disappeared. Some of the only evidence that remains of their way of life is depicted through their delicate rock art.

Sanbona is a custodian of this national heritage and protects seven recorded sites of ancient rock art that date back 3500 years.  They depict the spiritual beliefs and lives of the San and the Khoikhoi people that lived in this area until 100 years ago.

Research has shown that there was considerable integration between the Khoikhoi and the San, their collective name, Khoisan, referring in general to both groups. Nowadays, the San and the Khoikhoi people live in the arid Northern Cape Province of South Africa, as well as in Namibia and Botswana.

The Rock Art

The paintings left behind by the San and Khoikhoi are very different to each other.


The San paintings are more representative of animals, people, and beings and are done in a darker red colour due to the ochre they used.

Whereas the Khoikhoi paintings are more ‘orangey’ and symbolic in style. The paint was made from ochre, calcrete, animal blood, animal fat, plant sap, and ostrich eggs, which they ground to a paste.

Shaman Trance Dance.

Paintings are often the depiction of the trance experiences of the Shaman’s and their way of informing the people of their message.  The various sites chosen were also very symbolic, as the rock face was considered a portal between the different realms the Shaman had travelled through in his trance.

Some of the main reasons for the trance dance and resultant paintings were for healing people, to bring rain, to contact ancestors and to control animal movements.




How old are the paintings?

It is very difficult to date rock art.  Paintings could be between 2000 and 6000 years old!  One needs to find organic material to date the paintings through carbon and radio dating.  An approximation of age can be gauged by viewing the paintings.

  • Crude paintings are between 1500 to 2000 years old.
  • Fine-lined art is older, between 6000 and 10000 years old.

Some of the material used in the paintings also helps with dating. For example, the red ochre lasts much longer than white clay that fades very quickly.

Who are the San people?

The San were semi-nomadic. They followed the availability of water, game and edible plants, and they lived in harmony with the natural world around them. For millennia, they moved through the land using only what they needed when they needed it, their only enemies beasts of prey. Their survival skills are legendary with a truly special relationship with nature.  They took ownership of nothing, except perhaps the location of a good bee hive and its treasure of sweet honey.

Men hunted with poisoned arrows, spears and traps.  San trackers today are internationally renowned for their skills.   San women were responsible for gathering. Their basic tools were a digging stick and carry bags.

Some people call them Bushmen and for most this is an acceptable name.  They do prefer to be acknowledged by their different dialects and languages.  For example, those that speak Khwedam, are known as the Khwe people.

They speak many different language or dialects with wonderful names for their languages such Khwe, !Kung, Naro, Hai//om, Ju/’hoansi, !Xun, ≠Khomani, /Anikhwe, !Xõõ and /Xam.

Who are the Khoikhoi People?

About 2 000 years ago, the San were displaced by the Khoikhoi who appear to have migrated into the southern and southwestern Cape from the north. They kept Nguni cattle and flocks of fat-tailed sheep and were nomadic herdsmen and hunters who, by the middle of the 17th century, had become the dominant people in the region.

They lived in groups within territories with distinct leadership, however overall, called themselves the Khoikhoi, which means “men of men” or the “real people”.

They slept on reed mats in dome-shaped huts made from stripped branches which could be taken apart. Their huts were erected in a circle surrounded by a fence of thorny branches so that they could protect themselves and their animals.

As cattle require large amounts of grazing, the herders would have had to move their cattle inland annually because of the lack of summer rainfall. As finding water and pasture is vital, the social organisation was centred around this – most of the active population would move around for majority of the year, but elder tribesmen and women with young children would remain in one place with a few milk cows. They would source local food such as: shellfish or underground plant foods. They might be separated from the main herds for several weeks, depending on the season.

When you visit Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, don’t miss out on seeing the Rock Art.  It is an unforgettable glimpse into a way of life that was beautifully symbiotic with the environment.